Times used to be good for James (Paul Terry) as he lived with his doting parents in a house by the sea and was promised that one day the family would move to the city of New York. James loved the idea, but one day it all went horribly wrong when a rampaging rhinoceros ate up his mother and father, leaving him one of the loneliest, most friendless little boys in the world. To make matters worse, he was forced to live with his wicked aunts Sponge (Miriam Margoyles) and Spiker (Joanna Lumley), who made him perform chores from dawn till dusk. How could he escape this life of drudgery?
Well, the clue's in the title. James and the Giant Peach was adapted from the classic children's book by Roald Dahl, one of a handful of silver screen attempts to capture the elusive magic that the writer wove into his fiction. It was the first film directed by Henry Selick after The Nightmare Before Christmas, another Tim Burton production, but this was only part animated, with the stop motion stuff sandwiched between two blocks of live action bookends. The first of those bookends takes a typically Gothic approach to James's dilemma as he is victimised by his spiteful and selfish aunts.
Such creations are pure Dahl, the kind of adults that children will despise yet have a hold over the main character who must find someone better to take care of him, along the way discovering that he can be very resourceful when pushed. However, the cruelty in the author's prose can be played down, so the aunts, played to the hilt by a perfectly-cast Lumley and Margolyes, are more comic grotesques and when they're offscreen their threat is dissipated to some extent. Still, as in the novel it is satisfying to see them get their inevitable comeuppance.
The plot has been altered for the purposes of the film, but is essentially the same tale even if something sweeter than Dahl's quaintly twisted version has been the result. Here James, in the depths of his despair, meets an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) who offers him some magic, glowing, green, squirmy things to help the boy out of his predicament, but he ends up dropping them accidentally. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as they make a peach grow on a leafless tree which expands to, yes, giant size. One night, after the paying visitors the aunts have attracted have left, James investigates the fruit and has a surprise.
Which is that inside the peach, living in the stone, are a group of large creepy crawlies (not unlike the eighties cartoon series, er, Creepy Crawlies) who are delighted to see James and have no intention of eating him or each other - it's the ideal family he has been looking for since his parents died. The peach is freed, rolls down the hill and off a cliff into the Atlantic ocean, and the adventure begins as they all head to New York. Aspects of the book have been altered, so that the sharks who the travellers think are eating the peach when they're actually bumping their noses are now a huge mechanical fish which fires harpoons, but these changes are imaginatively handled and amusing. With a medium-starry cast handling the beasties' voices, the film sounds distinctive, helped by Randy Newman's tunes, but in spite of their best efforts what this film is not is funny. That Dahl wit is played down, so while it frequently looks dazzling, otherwise this effort is a little awkward.